It’s hard not to conclude that the White House’s Iran policy is being run by a gaggle of catty teenagers. How else can you explain a smear campaign of personal attacks and insinuations broadcast through friendly reporters and Twitter to discuss a serious policy issue that affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the national security of the United States?
In just the last few months, an unnamed White House aide described the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu as “chickenshit” then attacked Netanyahu, falsely, for violating “protocol” when he accepted an invitation from speaker of the House John Boehner to deliver an address before Congress. The White House is equally quick to slime Democrats with whom it disagrees. Just last month, the president himself personally accused Sen. Robert Menendez of being beholden to moneyed interests. According to the leader of his party, the New Jersey legislator wants to impose sanctions on Iran not out of a firm conviction that the Islamic Republic is a threat to American citizens, interests, and allies, born of 20 years of experience in the Senate, but because of pressure from “donors and others.”
“Donors and others” was an intentionally ugly phrase from President Barack Obama because the president meant to question not just Menendez’s personal integrity, but also his loyalty. After all, the reason it’s OK for environmentalist groups to spend millions of dollars to have the president heed their take on the Keystone XL pipeline, but it’s trouble when “donors and others” pay to have their opinions aired about Iran is that those donors might not really have the best interests of this country in mind. It’s no accident that “donors and others” sounds like an etiolated version of “New York moneymen.”
Is the Obama Administration a nest of vicious anti-Semites? Surely not. What seems more likely is that the administration is acting out because it knows it has a weak case. It can’t sell its Iran policy so it’s trying to beat everyone into submission. The fact that much of the administration’s Iran policy and diplomacy, for instance, have been conducted in secret, with its desire to silence even friendly critics, like members of the same political party, is evidence of something just as scary as the casual employment of anti-Semitic tropes. The argument for making a deal with Iran is falling apart, so every time someone steps forward to question the wisdom of the deal, all Obama and his advisers hears is that their policy has no clothes.
As I wrote shortly after the mid-term elections, the presidency of the United States is typically described as the most powerful job in the world because of the commander in chief’s ability to chart the course of a superpower. Thus, if Obama wants to make a deal with Iran, it would be awfully hard for a Republican-controlled Senate or House to stop him. So, why is he sweating a speech delivered by the prime minister of a country of fewer then 8 million people that will be broadcast on a few cable channels when most Americans are at work? What was hard to see three months ago, what has only become clear on account of the White House’s smear campaign, is that even Obama is having second thoughts about the wisdom of striking an agreement with Iran.
The good news then is that the president is a man of reason, a world leader who adjusts to reality as described by facts. Obama is an empirical man. He looks around the Middle East and sees the kind of trouble the Iranians are causing. They control four Arab capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a), which puts them on the doorstep of several U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Israel. In return for all this running room, they have grown more aggressive, not more flexible.
Perhaps as worrisome as the Iranians controlling access to the Persian Gulf is the fact that they’re making moves in this hemisphere. Recently, Uruguay expelled an Iranian diplomat for his alleged involvement in placing a dummy bomb at the Israeli embassy in Montevideo. In October, Peruvian counterterrorism officials foiled a Hezbollah plot to attack Jewish centers and tourist sites popular with Israelis. The assassination of Alberto Nisman in Buenos Aires last month is a sharp reminder of the two major attacks the Iranians pulled off in Argentina in the 1990s.
Maybe Obama has come to understand that the Iranians want to put the conflict right in our backyard. Perhaps it’s the late realization that a nuclear weapons program will make Iran a global power that can even more powerfully interfere with American priorities—not an ally. Maybe it’s because Obama can’t cover for the Iranians anymore that he’s telling everyone else to pipe down.
Iran is moving so quickly now. Three weeks ago Israel destroyed an Iranian-Hezbollah convoy on the Golan Heights, and now the IRGC is back in Quneitra. You can bet that’s going to be one of Netanyahu’s bullet points, Obama’s thinking. Christ, what if he brings one of those drawings to Capitol Hill, like he did when he spoke at the U.N. General Assembly in 2012? What’s it going to be, a map of the Middle East with Iran now owning an enormous chunk of it? No, I see it now—Bibi’s going to hold up a big “Black Friday” sign. Yeah, the Iranians think U.S. policy is like a big fire sale, Black Friday, and they’re just going to keep shopping while the price is right.
And that’s the fear that’s really eating at the president, and why the White House is taking it out on party loyalists like Menendez as well as enemies like Netanyahu—that Iran is going to get half the Middle East along with an atom bomb and the president isn’t even going to get a photo op.
Obama never expected much from Iran to begin with. Part of the logic behind the president’s Iran policy has always been the belief that history clearly shows that you can’t stop a country from acquiring a bomb if it’s intent on getting one. You can’t kill the knowledge that goes into a bomb. So, what can the White House realistically demand from the Iranians in exchange for something it has neither the power to grant nor deny? Nothing. Just that they don’t break out until Obama has safely left office.
Obama made Ayatollah Khamenei a pen pal in order to win his trust and his favor, at which point the Iranian leader would doubtlessly do him a solid in exchange for talking nice and easing off sanctions. But now Obama sees that his glad-handing doesn’t matter, because the supreme leader has taken his measure these last five years and knows that the Americans won’t do a damn thing to stop him—and the carrots alone aren’t worth the price. The diplomatic fan-dance on which Obama staked his legacy in the Middle East turned out to matter much more to the American president than to the Iranian regime—whose legitimacy rests on resistance to America and to the West. The price that Obama thought was reasonable—sign a piece of paper and smile for the cameras—was simply not a price that Khamenei has proven willing to pay. Why pay something when you can pay nothing?
It seems that Obama has finally come to understand that his legacy is in the hands of an obscurantist lunatic. You don’t have to be a high-school psychologist to see why he’s taking it out on everyone around him.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).